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There's a Lot of Fiction Going on in 'Bridge of Spies'

This case is based on fictions, on agreements that multiple governments are spying on one another, crafting and selling secrets, trading in human beings, and profiting from military-corporate-ever-unofficial deals.

Bridge of Spies

Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Scott Shepherd, Amy Ryan, Sebastian Koch, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Mikhail Gorevoy, Will Rogers
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Disney
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-10-16 (General release)
UK date: 2015-11-27 (General release)

"There's a lot of fiction going on." A New York City insurance lawyer, James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) is no stranger to lies and manipulations. But when he's asked by the US government to defend a Soviet spy and then, five years later, to negotiate his exchange for an American pilot, Donovan sees fiction of another dimension. Indeed, says CIA director Allen Dulles (Peter McRobbie) partway through Bridge of Spies, both sides "indulge" the other's fiction in order to run their own.

And with that, Donovan agrees to travel to East Berlin where he'll have no "official standing", no affiliation with his government, and no legal recourse if something goes wrong. Donovan agrees because he's developed a relationship with his client, Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), one based on mutual respect and an honesty that stands in stark contrast to pretty much every other relationship he has. This includes Donovan's marriage to Mary (Amy Ryan), whom he loves dearly and to whom he lies outright, unable to share with her his super-top-secret mission.

This mission begins in 1957, when Abel is arrested. The film's deft opening sequence tracks this takedown as Abel quietly makes his way to a pickup point, posing as an amateur artist with easel and box of paints and brushes. Once he recovers his object, a coin in which is hidden a scrap of paper filled with tiny notations, he's pursued to his tiny apartment and hauled away by a pack of anonymous, noisy FBI agents. No matter that Abel is guilty of the crime.

Inspired by a true story and written by Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Coen, the screenplay underscores that Abel maintains a moral and also a behavioral high ground. Donovan admires that he's both polite and professional, a man who's very good at his job.

Here Abel parallels Donovan, which makes them at once alike and not. "Everyone will hate me but at least I'll lose," the lawyer remarks to his boss (Alan Alda) when informed that the case will be a show of the American legal system in its most fictitious mode. When they meet for the first time in a prison visitation room, they note that the charges against Abel include his "failure to register as a foreign agent", is a prime example of the absurdity of that system.

Donovan comes to appreciate Abel's commitment to doing his job, a commitment he shares: even as they both see that no one can win, they do the thing they believe is right. The case against Abel is based on fictions, on agreements that multiple governments are spying on one another, crafting and selling secrets, trading in human beings, and profiting from military-corporate-ever-unofficial deals.

Donovan defends his client earnestly, all the way through to the Supreme Court, and despite the cruel headlines and Mary's generic objections ("He's a threat to all of us"). On one occasion, gunshots are fired through his Brooklyn windows, almost striking his daughter (Eve Hewson) while she's watching TV. Losing the case as he must, Donovan still says "yes" a few years later, when asked to work out the deal to trade Abel for Powers (Austin Stowell), who was shot down over Germany and is apparently possessed of mechanical knowledge the US wants to protect.

This time, he doesn't need to convince Mary that his cause is honorable, if difficult and complicated and risky, because this time, he doesn't tell her what he's doing or where he's going. She thinks he's on a business trip to London, rather than escorted to Berlin by a stern but repeatedly outsmarted Agent Hoffman (Scott Shepherd). Once they arrive, Hoffman issues edicts, then displays his exasperation when Donovan reveals what changes he's made to the plan. Donovan's sometimes risky independence is made visible as he's on his own traipsing through snowy alleys or past surly border guards in order to meet with a couple of enemy agents who are themselves reluctant to say exactly what they're doing.

Such ambiguity is at once too obvious and often compelling here. The compromises and hypocrisies are perfectly hinted at in Hanks' and especially Rylance's superb performances, but they're also hammered home in edited sequences that lurch from one storyline to another. In this, Bridge of Spies is vintage Steven Spielberg, superbly crafted but not quite trusting viewers to absorb nuances. So, Powers' crash is cut together with Donovan's struggles and with a third story, that of an American student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), who is detained at the Wall and labeled a spy, apparently for future bargaining purposes.

While Donovan is duly horrified when he sees East Germans shot dead in broad daylight while trying to scale the Wall, he's never naïve, and finds ingenious ways to talk his way out of one dire situation after another. Whether he's giving up his overcoat to get past a street gang or standing off against Hoffman or lying to Mary about where he's purchased a jar of her favorite marmalade, Donovan makes deals, with himself and everyone else, in order to achieve a greater good.

That good makes Donovan's fiction all right, and therefore, different from other fiction. When he's instructed "not to go Boy Scout", Donovan's righteous manipulations reveal that such a notion is itself a fiction. He ensures that all the men with whom he's negotiating -- from the Germans to the Russians to the Americans -- know that he knows what they know, and vice versa. As they come to respect his intelligence, you see again that he is very much like Abel, a man who is also very good at his job.


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